In Matthew 9, Jesus had a meal at Matthew’s house, dining with many tax collectors and sinners. Jesus had a habit of doing stuff like this, and it usually put the Pharisees in a tizzy. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:9-12, NIV)
Jesus overheard this question and replied: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13) Jesus often answered questions like this with declarative statements like the first and third sentences in Jesus’s reply quoted above. But in the second sentence, he said something unusual: “But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus didn’t explain what it meant. He left it up to the Pharisees–and to us–to figure it out.
The “mercy, but sacrifice” quote comes from Hosea 6:6. Hosea was frustrated with both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel. They didn’t get it. In Hosea 6:4, Hosea chided the Israelites: “Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” And then in verse 6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Israelites and the Pharisees were experts at following rules (like sacrificing burnt offerings). They struggled with what these rules represented: acknowledging the God of mercy and love.
Jesus used the quote from Hosea another time in Matthew. The Pharisees had caught Jesus’s disciples violating the Law by working on the Sabbath (gathering food to eat). After reminding the Pharisees that King David and priests had done the same thing, he said in so many words, “I told you to figure this out, but you haven’t.” The actual quote was: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)
Where do we stand? Is our love like the morning dew? Do we acknowledge a God of mercy? Do we use our rule-following notions to judge those who don’t follow the rules or who discern the higher spiritual principles that overshadow all the rules?
Perhaps James had Hosea and Matthew in mind when he wrote: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12-13)